February 1, 2008

Wake up and smell the prejudice

In the wake of Monkeygate, Indians must confront the ugly fact that they are racist - unconsciously or otherwise

There is a lesson for Harbhajan and his mates, and for all of us, in the fact that the charge, once divorced from its racial connotation, was watered down © Getty Images

In a north London pub on a warm summer's afternoon three years ago, I had an absorbing conversation with an English novelist friend of mine. We were talking about the cultural and political resonances swear words have in different countries.

"So what would be a really insulting one in India?" my friend asked.

"Er, in which language?"

"Well, any language. Okay, let's say, in Hindi."

"Sisterf***er," I said.

"Mmm," my friend - celebrated in many countries for his irony and his urbane, polished prose - looked at me over the rim of his glass. "Now that doesn't sound too awful. If you'd called some of our Premier League footballers that, they might have told you, 'Yeah, and so?'"

I sniggered into my drink. People from the adjacent table turned to look at us. We carried on.

At the end of the afternoon, neither my friend nor I had any doubt that across the world as a whole, a racist slur would be the most unacceptable one of all: even Premier League footballers who would have found nothing objectionable about having a not quite uncorrupted relationship with their sisters would have been appalled and taken exception to a racist taunt.

I thought of this conversation in the days following the reversal of Harbhajan Singh's ban, amid the howling maelstrom of outrage about whether India had flexed its financial muscle -- and if it had, by how much -- to have Australia and the rest of the cricket world cower at its feet.

I thought of it because in that swirl of emotions we Indians have tended to lose sight of a problem we need to tackle: we are still in denial that we are a deeply racist country. Often, we are racist although we are not conscious of being so. (It's time we were.) We, with our fondness for light skin tones, tend to be prejudiced against those with darker ones. We don't think of it as racism. But the world does. And it is. It can't go on. We need to grow up.

A few examples.

In the aftermath of the overturning of the ban, a board administrator was quoted as having said something like, "We shall not stand for our boys being called racists." Our boys? Racists? Gosh. Cue incredulity, shock, horror. (Denial.)

When Andrew Symonds was taunted with monkey chants by the crowd in Vadodara, and then in Mumbai last year, I remember some of my colleagues - educated, affluent, urban Indians, all of them - saying, "Oh, so what's the fuss? The Australians say much worse." (Ignorance, unknowingness, denial.) "Monkey," they said, is hardly that offensive. To be fair, the term does not quite imply in India what it does in the UK or the US or Australia, though it's not good enough to say that any more.

They were missing the point.

And here is another example - from my own childhood.

I grew up in a middle-class, educated Bengali household in Kolkata. The routine term to describe the complexion of someone like myself -- not fair, like some of the members of my extended family -- was "moila" (literally translated as "dirty"). The funny thing, I now find, was that no one thought much of having said it. It was uttered unselfconsciously -- if always with a bit of regret.

They were missing the point too; but we can't afford to do that any longer. We need to first accept that as a nation, India is among the most racist in the world. African students on the streets of Mumbai will testify to that, as will black cricketers. Then, we need to be aware of the fact that a racist insult is the absolute worst thing that you can throw at someone; and finally, we need to unshackle ourselves from this mindset.

All this is made tricky given India's complex, disconcerting, and often inexplicable relationship with colour. The festishisation of white skin in a brown-skinned country comes bound up with an irreconcilable sense of contradiction and a notion of, often unconscious, self-loathing. Creams and lotions that claim to lighten one's skin have for years comprised an industry worth many millions in India. Look at the matrimonial ads. Listen to some of the conversations in educated, affluent, urban households. And keep your ears pricked, particularly for the throwaway asides.

In India, fair still equates to pretty, handsome, attractive. And the opposite? Well...

The changing of a collective consciousness, of course, is a long process. But India's international cricket players will need to be among the first to adapt, and quickly. It is convenient and fatuous to pretend that sport exists only for itself and that cricketers are merely sportspersons. It isn't. And they aren't. Cricket's place is at the heart of Indian popular culture

But the point is this: Talking about cultural differences simply isn't good enough anymore in this context. Times have changed. We live in a global village. More and more societies are taking pride in their multicultural identities. Indians travel more than they ever did. The country has changed more rapidly in the past ten years than it did in the previous 50. We no longer have a choice but to be aware of global templates of racism and to be sensitive towards them. Unlearning our deeply entrenched notions of and responses to skin tone will take years, but being aware of things will be some sort of a start.

The changing of a collective consciousness, of course, is a long process. But our international cricket players will need to be among the first to adapt, and quickly. It is convenient and fatuous to pretend that sport exists only for itself and that cricketers are merely sportspersons.

It isn't. And they aren't. Cricket's place is at the heart of Indian popular culture; and to large swathes of the world's population, these cricketers exemplify India. They are India's global ambassadors.

There is a lesson for Harbhajan and his mates, and for all of us, in the fact that the charge, once divorced from its racial connotation, was watered down. The lesson is that abusive language is less of an offence internationally than a racist taunt; that a Hindi phrase that isn't, well, terribly respectful towards someone else's mother is seen to be less criminal than calling that someone a monkey.

The sooner we learn that lesson, the better it is for Harbhajan -- and the rest of the country. It will help us grow up.

Soumya Bhattacharya, deputy editor of Hindustan Times in Mumbai, is the author of the memoir, You Must Like Cricket?. His new book on how cricket defines India will be published as part of Penguin's Indian Essentials series later this year

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shantanu on February 2, 2008, 5:53 GMT

    This article might fit better in some uber-intellectual rag, where people can discuss the quality of prose over earl-grey tea, but this is cricket we are talking about, are we not? What has this grotesque gross-generalization of an article to do with cricket.Sorry if I missed the point here. Yes , a small section of the crowd at Mumbai were irresponsible and juvenile. But they were still a small section; you didnt see the whole stadium going up in Mexican wave of sorts, doing the monkey chants, did you?There are tourists being robbed and swindled in India, but does that mean we are a nation of theives now?

    "The festishisation of white skin in a brown-skinned country" - How many brown-skinned countries don't?Does that mean they are all racist? What about white-skinned countries?Are they not racist?

    Maybe you should wake up and smell the coffee first, before writing.

  • Raman on February 2, 2008, 5:24 GMT

    The problem is that global definitions of racism can be thrown into a bit of disarray when dealing with India. Indian governments have always denied recognising caste-discrimination as racism, as they claim that the UN's definition for racism does not cover Indian ishtyle caste-based discrimination. However, we all know that for all practical purposes, it is the same thing.

    As for this whole skin colour hullabulla, it is a phenomenon created by several different issues crashing into one. And yes, racism is one of them. While ancient Indian texts like the Bhagavatha Puranas rarely showed any preference for skin colour, things seem to have changed over the last few centuries. It seems quite likely that being subjugate to the White Raj for a few hundred years has had its effect on our population.

    Western countries do like tanning, yes, but we cannot say that this preference derives from being made inferior to any other race. The same cannot be said for Indians though.

  • Ganesh on February 2, 2008, 5:19 GMT

    Saumya...ah ..you are falling into the familiar Westernised error of judging everything by the thinking of the average person in the rich Westernised countries. Do they have more people than say , India,China and parts of Africa. And your definition of "global" is wrong.

    For the average Western and so-called Westernised Indian, calling a person a "monkey" is worse than calling someone an unprintable error. But for Indians, a slur based on an allegation about one's parentage is definitely far far worse . Why should Indians be judged by your definition of "global" standards.

    Your definition of "global" implies "Western" rather than global. You have to wake up - The "global" economy and the "global" media are by your definition, run on Eastern Standard Time or GMT, but things are changing.

  • Chandrasekharan on February 2, 2008, 5:04 GMT

    There may be a point to be made for being more conscious in avoiding use of terms that may be construed as racist in other nations. However, I think the key factor in determining whether a nation and its people are racist or otherwise is not whether they call them names, but whether they are discriminated against on that or whether they are treated equally as any other. On that count, Indians will not qualify as being racist, it is a penchant for mockery that needs to be rid of.

  • Jeremy on February 2, 2008, 3:41 GMT

    This article needed to be written,to start debate & self-reflection among Indians about racism in Indian society.I haven't been to India but assume that it is just as prevalent there as anywhere else.There is definitely racism in Australia,just like anywehere else,but fortunately also widespread acceptance that it exists.Australia has matured in recent decades,and through accepting that racism exists the dreadful problems and injustices it causes can be addressed.Mature self-reflection and ceasing to deny the problem is the most fundamentally difficult but most important step.

    Whether a word is racist or not must be judged by the subject of it, not by the person uttering it who thinks it isn't.Australian cricketers have recently learnt hard lessons about international perceptions of them. Footage of some Mumbai fans in October 2007 and much indignant rhetoric about Australian racism has also drawn focus upon widespread denial of racism in India.Racism exists everywhere.

  • madappa on February 2, 2008, 2:35 GMT

    Thanks for striking at the extreme racism practiced in India. Gandhi fought against racism everywhere, but have his ideas stuck in India? I think not, despite claims to the contrary. When I was playing cricket, my own family, including my wife, complained that I would get dark exposing my skin to the sun so much! The fact that I was successful at my cricketing career was inconsequential. I gave up cricket for other pursuits in life, but cricket is in my blood. For all the high moral grounds claimed, I'm sorry to say that racism (i.e., discriminating because of a person's body color) is inherently in the Indian psyche. This attitued should be gotten rid of permanently. As the article points out, just look at the matrimonials all over! The sooner this attitude is shed, the better everything will be. Growth in economy does not necessarily mean growth in what matters! imply growth in tolerance and sympathy. As the old adage says ``you catch more flies w

  • Baradutt on February 2, 2008, 2:25 GMT

    I don't want to make a judgement whether Bhaji meant whatever he said as a 'racist taunt'. It might also have been out of emotion in the heat of the situation. But, as an Indian I would say, yes, racism is a big and very old problem in India, unlike other countries where it is nascent. We live with it. I've even heard my Indian friends here in the USA, talking about the US being a racist country when they themselves know in the back of their mind, how people of different communities are treated in India. When politicians who instead of rooting out these evils, use it as a tool to get to positions of power to make bucks for them and bakras out of people still exist, racism will never be eradicated. Like Soumya says, sportspeople like Bhaji are ambassadors of India and should practise patience and never give others a chance to criticize them. He should learn from his mistakes and restrain himself. We need aggression in performance and not in taunts. The Aussies seem to do well in both.

  • Arindam on February 2, 2008, 2:18 GMT

    Even though I wouldn't term Bhajji's outburst in this specific case as racist, I do agree with Soumya that we have an element of racism in our society. Without ever trying to generalize across such a diverse country, I would just like to mention an experience from 8 years ago.

    In 2000 I was working in Mumbai for a Multi-National company that had a sizeable expatriate workforce. One of the engineers working for me was Nigerian. He had recently arrived with his family and was searching for an apartment in Mumbai. At one point the company had almost closed a deal for a lease when the landlord found out that the prospective tenant was black. Without any inquiry in to his background the landlord simply refused to rent his apartment to the engineer - simply because he did not want a black person living in his apartment.

    However, one should not try to generalize, neither should we think that we are worse off than any other Western population in terms of racism or prejudice.

  • Ian on February 2, 2008, 1:59 GMT

    Thankyou Soumya - it is great to hear some rational thinking! Posters, if you canot accept that Monkey is a racist word (and probably the single most racist word), then you are an ignorant bigot. You need to show some cultural sensitivity. In Australia, we have a bad history with racism, we accept that and we are trying really hard promote tolerance and acceptance in our great multi-cultural land. Our sports stars (and most of you only know 11) accept their mistakes and understand their roles as role models. Nobody is perfect. The best role model is human. They can make mistakes, as we all do, but they stand up and take responsibilities for their actions. In this way role models can help to address andiron out any issues that might, in the future, hinder India's progress as a powerful nation.

  • open on February 2, 2008, 1:43 GMT

    First of all, keep cricket and moral instruction separate. You are disgracing one-sixth of humanity for an incident which was not proven. If you want to talk about indians and racism this is not the proper venue.

    On to the broader point: Is there a problem of racism(treating people differently based on which group they belong to) in india? Certainly. Is it the worst in the world? you need to visit a few more countries if you think so.

    Judge individuals on their merit (a few people among thousands at mumbai match and does not represent a billion). Racists think only in terms of groups as do collectivists like you. You need to grow up too when you are telling an entire nation to do so.

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